Thursday, January 22, 2015

Thorough Thursdays : CLOSE ENCOUNTERS of the THIRD KIND

Prior to this post, I have only mentioned Close Encounters of The Third Kind, the 1977 Colombia Pictures Science Fiction film directed by Steven Spielberg, in a blog entry twice before.

That's just wrong.

Few films have had a creative impact on me quite like this one.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the first, and last, film I ever saw with just my Dad.

I don't recall why, but it was only he and I in my Grandfather's theatre that day, with my Mom, and baby sister (only 3 years old at the time), elsewhere. Again, why this was,  I don't remember.

I wanted to see it because it featured UFOs, this cool looking mountain with a flat top, and it just looked spooky, and weird.

My Dad wanted to see it because Richard Dreyfuss was in it, and he liked Dreyfuss as an actor. He became of fan of Dreyfuss after seeing him Jaws, and remembered him for his role in American Graffiti.

While we didn't really have a ton of interests in common, he did see eye to eye on a few subjects. He liked fishing, we liked spicy food, and we loved good movies. It didn't matter if it was Science Fiction, a comedy, a mystery thriller, or a Disney musical. If it was quality, we could tell.

This...this was quality.

Some of Spielberg's best directing was on display in this film, and the effects were amazing for the time. Actually, they still hold up remarkably well. There were wonderful acting performances by Dreyfuss, and Francois Truffaut, not to mention Melinda Dillon, Teri Garr, and even three year old Cary Guffey, who played the young boy in the film. Combined with a very atmospheric score, incredible and diverse set locations, and a great story, Close Encounters remains one of my favorite films of all time.

My Dad liked it too, and it remains one of the few Science Fiction films that I recall him really taking a shine to. So much so that he took me to see the 'Special Edition' version, essentially a director's cut, when it came out in 1980, though that time we had my sister along as well.

Did I mention the film had a big impact on me? It did. Huge. Mothership sized.

Aside from the subject matter - Humanity making peaceful contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence - there are numerous, complex, and subtle themes going on that are not addressed directly, but are clearly present. There are religious, and psychological overtones, ideas on how we perceive the universe, how we communicate, and much more.

I am absolutely enamoured with the cinematography, and the direction of this film. Much of my early Gamemastering  success came from watching Spielberg's movies, this one especially. Watching it repeatedly in later years helped me develop a better sense of how to set a scene, how environment can become a character onto itself, and how to create a sense of mystery, and creepiness, without resorting to gore or being otherwise overly obvious.

Spielberg at that time was a master of mood, with an uncanny ability to mix just the right proportions of humorous and tense, heartwarming and terrifying. The elements of classic UFO sighting stories are clearly visible in the film, but presented in a very personal way in the motion picture.

If you haven't seen this movie, or haven't seen it in a long time, go watch it again. Trust me. You'll love it (possibly all over again).


How do you game Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
The film does not translate easily to a table top gaming scenario in a direct way. Not that it couldn't work, but it is a very tight narrative, with very open ended questions left unanswered by the film's end.

That doesn't mean UFO focused games can't work. On the contrary. I have been working on a UFO RPG pet project for some years now. While my personal idea is more of a Science Fiction/Comedy game, I am very much interested in doing something more serious as well. I've entertained several Close Encounters inspired ideas over the years, and continue to do so, although I've rarely gotten the chance to run any of them as of yet.

Imagine a 1950s/60s 'Project Blue Book' version of the X-Files, or a downplayed 'Men In Black' (that isn't as comedic, and over-the-top). What about a variant of Gerry Anderson's UFO that features the secret organization SHADO fighting a clandestine war against aliens that the world at large is not aware of.*

This is another one of those subjects I could talk about forever. I couldn't get enough of magazines, news articles, books, and TV shows about flying saucers. It was the mystery that drew me in, the unknown as much as the possibility of alien life. I grew up in the age of UFO sightings, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster being major pop culture components. Close Encounters was therefore not only fascinating and fun to me, but relevant.

In our modern world of satellite tracking, and digital photography, such mysteries as lake monsters, and giant man-beasts are hard to believe. Our technology would find some evidence, our science would locate some definitive clues.

UFOs on the other hand, by their very nature, still baffle us. Remember, UFO means Unidentified Flying Object, not 'Alien Spaceship'. We have not proof that aliens are visiting, but you can not deny that there are things people have seen, that they simply can not identify.

Imagining what those things are, and what a close encounter with them would be like, is where the magic happens.

Perhaps, hopefully...We are not alone.

Barking Alien

*There was a Manga at one point, published by the same company that produces the Japanese model magazine 'Model Graphix', that was set in what appeared to be an alternate universe take of Anderson's UFO. I used to get that Manga, and it was definitely be a major source of idea if I were to run a UFO based game.


  1. It's weird but I've always found this film disturbing. I know it's supposed to be uplifting but there's something about that ending that I find creepy.

    1. I don't disagree, and in fact, that is one of the things about the film that intrigues me the most.

      We are watching, in many ways, the primordial Spielberg film. It is heartwarming, and uplifting, while at the same time creepy, truly otherworldly, and morally confusing.

      In an interview many years after the film's debut, Spielberg said that once he had kids of his own, it totally changed his view of Richard Dreyfuss' character. If he produced the film today (at the time of the interview), he would never have had Roy Neary leave his family to go with the aliens.

      I understand what he was saying, but it would make for a very different, and significantly less impressive film.

      Neary (Dreyfuss) had been effected by an experience so life changing, that to not see it through would have eventually eaten away at him in my opinion. If he didn't see it through, didn't go to Devil's Tower, meet the little blue saucer people, didn't go with them, he would've returned to his family un-whole. He would be with his wife, and kids physically, but his true self would always be wondering, wandering, and wishing for answers that would never come.

    2. Brrr, that would have been a dark film; seen in that context the film as it is does look uplifting!

      I don't know why I react the way I do to the ending. Perhaps it seems like death or even suicide, that Roy is giving up on life by going into the ship. I can't put my finger on it but there's something wrong about him going away with the aliens and that's what gives me the creeps.

    3. I certainly understand where you're coming from. A great movie makes different people think, and feel, different things.

      It's interesting about the death, suicide, 'giving up on life' viewpoint. I saw it more Eastern Philosophy-oriented (no pun intended).

      Rory over came obstacles, hardships, and even naysayers to be there when the UFOs made contact. He is then chosen, chosen out of all those people prepped and ready to go (remember that part?) to be the one to ascend to a higher plane of understanding, perhaps enlightenment.

      That's hope I saw it anyway. More than uplifting. Nirvana.

    4. One thing is clear: I want to see it again! I haven't watched it in years and I'm interested in seeing if I have the same reaction to it now.

  2. I know that I've got enough geek credibility with you already, but one of the members of my staff actually sang with the Jon Williams Orchestra for Close Encounters (and all three Star Wars movies). He had that on the top of his resume as a sort of header, possibly knowing his audience.

    1. Name dropper (without even dropping a name! That's badass).

  3. I saw it at the Drive-In when it was released. It was my (9yrs old) first gov conspiracy. I remember being scared that people were so easily manipulated and manhandled. The helicopters and gas was chilling.

    The movie is still amazing. Last year I saw an original 35 mm on the big screen. A little girl in the audience said "Daddy, what are those [scratches on the print] lines for?" Ahh, to be born in the digital age.
    After watching it in my soft middle age, I was alarmed by Roy's legacy. His irrational behavior, disappearance and total abandonment of his family is very dark. His boys would haunted by his actions forever.